An ounce of tendu and life

Written by Tashi Tobgyal | Updated: Jun 9 2008, 00:43am hrs
Its a puff job that is big in India. Credited for producing almost 85% of the worlds bidis, India has a hundred million smokers too. An industry so well protected, with taxes at such minimal levels and hordes of takers, this business has nowhere to go but head north one would think. But within the realm of a huge industry employing 70 lakh workers, alls not well.

Most workers earn less than a dollar for every thousand bidis rolled. Exposed to various sicknesses and risks, their lives are spent in acute poverty, enamelled within the promising figures of this industry. But in one corner of India, things are not going to be the same for the next generation of bidi workers. Padali is a small, colourful village in the Nasik region of Maharashtra, surrounded by a rugged dry topography, and it is here that the Vidi Kamgar Kalyan Pratishthan (VKKP), a branch of the Sarda Group, monitors the Equal Opportunities programme. Its an irony that one of the largest bidi manufacturers is aiding in the development of a programme where, over time the hands that roll out tendu leaves for bidis might soon be wielding pens perhaps, thereby proving to be a loss for the business.

With the aim of giving back, the Sarda Group conducted a survey to identify talent. The survey aimed to pick out children from the bidi-making community who are capable of gaining a decent level of education, and in the process, getting an opportunity to do better in life. Its not about education, but equal opportunity, and a chance to make it says Shrirang Sarda, CEO of the Group, who adds: Those who cannot make it through education, can, through various kinds of vocational training. All we want is that in the course of time, no child should be a bidi maker.

Through the years, the Sarda Group has been identifying talent from within the community, supporting their education and training. With the formation of the VKKP, this endeavour has got further streamlined. Kiran Datir, now a practicing doctor in Nasik and Kiran Ekhande working at the Asian Electronics are among those from the bidi worker community whose lives have not only been transformed but they also serve as inspiration for the younger children there.

With the help of district heads and coordinators at the designated villages, organising the children, motivating the families and also imparting necessary knowledge and information is smooth. Children of all ages congregate at the karkhana, which is their classroom for now. But soon, the Group has plans to constitute organised infrastructure for the same. It is within the premises of the karkhana that the coordinator goes about her task of both teaching and classifying children as per talent, skills and intelligence. According to the current state of affairs, the VKKP has designated a dozen karkhanas with an equal number of coordinators for the Sinnar block under which Padali is one branch. Two Block officers of the VKKP head each block. So Omkar and Mahendra head Sinnar. Coming from distant Vidharbha, they are both Social Work graduates and express the need for more professionals to adopt such rural undertakings.

At age eight, it is ironical to see Rekha Revgade sing a Dowry song for the class. But at the same time, a visiting team leader from VKKP presumes she has a promising voice.

Hira Nandu Kirkide, 17, is pursuing her diploma in teaching from the educational expense assistance she gets from the VKKP. Her grandmother and mother cant be more hopeful about her future as they sit in their one-room home chatting and rolling the days quota. The VKKP educational assistance is of two types. One is of funding conveyance through the schooling period. The second is paying for the food and stay of a resident student. In case of extraordinary performance, all expenses are borne by the Group.

A few blocks away from Kirkides home, Poonam Burkule sits tailoring a few petticoats. She discontinued her studies after she failed her matriculation, but fortunately, discovered her talent in tailoring. The VKKP assisted her training at the prestigious Dandekar Institute and provided her with a tailoring machine.

There is yet another happy story. Sunita Sahane experienced a blip of gloom in her life when she was married off after her intermediary studies suddenly. She hadnt an idea about it till the last moment. Her dream to study further had got drowned out under the heavy burden of household chores and negotiating the complexities of marriage. It was only the motivation of the VKKP programme that made her attend vocational courses. Today, she is one among a dozen coordinators in the region. Throughout the Nasik region (Maharashtra), as also in Andhra Pradesh, VKKPs programmes have faced roadblocks. But there has been a sense of achievement too. As the Groups CEO says: I am a capitalist. I can go wherever I like. But what about them I must give something back to the workers. I therefore want to give them education. But it doesnt end there, because education is just a way to that change.

Within the next few months, VKKP, on the basis of the recently concluded survey through the region, shall draw up a conclusive plan, laying the necessary infrastructure for ending one of its most known and profitable products. Soon the Children of Padali will have that one chance of equal opportunity.